Priceless birthday presents

Tucked away in the basement of this building on the leafy campus of Johns Hopkins University, is the Department of Conservation & Preservation of the Sheridan Libraries. It was here that I went early this year to meet Jennifer Jarvis, a Book & Paper Conservator at the libraries, with a bundle of precious, but dilapidated, books under my arm. The books were so loved and much-used that they had come adrift from their spines and had been sticky taped together many times over. It was time to try and restore a little piece of the past.

The books come from a complete set of Charles Dickens, in a reprinting by the Collins Clear-Type Press, London, and Glasgow. Collins was one of a whole group of publishers—Everyman was another—that offered an affordable option for building a home library in the early 20th-century. There is no publication date on the Dickens set, but a site that documents 20th-Century Publishers Book Series puts it at around 1920. The books are small (6 x 4 that fits perfectly in the hand), cloth bound, with quirky Art Nouveau end pages, and text blocks so delicate that the pages seem to sigh when you turn them.

This Dickens series published by the Collins Library of Classics was a 21st birthday gift for my mother, Joan née Barker (Sarah’s great granddaughter) and you could tell which had been her favorites—David Copperfield, Our Mutual Friend, and Great Expectations—because they were the the ones that were falling apart the most. The books are illustrated by the barrister-turned-artist, W.H.C. (William Henry Charles) Groome (1954-1913). My mother, being the somewhat headstrong maverick that she was, folded the illustrations in half lengthwise so that the artistic visualizations of someone else didn’t impede her own—they were her books to do with as she pleased, I suppose!

When my mother died in 2013, the books came to me, and I schlepped them back from Cape Town to America in my suitcase, carefully wrapped in various articles of clothing. Ever since, I’ve looked at the battered, patched-together spines with a pang, wondering when the time would come that I would be able to have them restored. This year was the time, when I learned about Jennifer Jarvis and the Department of Conservation & Preservation—and this was the week that I was able to go and collect them (along with Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard by Eleanor Farjeon, beloved since my childhood.)

Jennifer Jarvis
Book & Paper Conservator








Jennifer has coaxed the books back to life and made them whole without taking away one iota of their history—the end pages are preserved, the spines still have their cloth binding, the watermark on David Copperfield still keeps its hidden story. It feels like another reaching back into the past and bringing it into my present life.


Summer Newsletter #celebrateimmigrants




“Every writer has only one story to tell”
—James Baldwin

In my case, I wouldn’t even have been a writer if telling my story hadn’t compelled me; after I became an immigrant twenty-two years ago, I simply hadto write about it. So now, on this first day of June, the start of the sixth Annual Immigrant Heritage Month, I am launching a seasonal newsletter—summer, fall, winter, spring—and you are receiving it because our paths have crossed in some way, which makes you part of my extended community. Please know that you can opt out at any time, although I do hope you will stay to share the countdown to the launch date of Old New Worlds, which intertwines two immigrant stories—mine from Africa to America, and my great-great grandmother, Sarah Barker’s, from England to Africa two hundred years before.

This painting is the second from a collection of eight watercolors by my mother, Joan Krummeck née Barker—Sarah’s great granddaughter—and it inspired the cover for Old New Worlds. The original paintings were commissioned for a one-man play “Red George,” adapted and performed by my brother, Peter Krummeck, from the diaries of Sarah’s missionary husband, Rev. George Barker (1789-1861). These diaries were also one of my primary sources—and the whole network of serendipitous connections has extended well beyond my immediate family in the search for my ancestral soul mate. It really has been, and continues to be, a journey, and I hope that you’ll share it with me and follow along by signing up for my seasonal newsletter or following me on my website. As an incentive, I plan to give away a framed print of this painting to one follower, whom I will select on Sunday, August 25, three weeks before my book’s launch date.

As I write this, the layout of the pages is being designed and I’m thinking ahead to recording the audiobook. My publisher, Green Place Books, is considering using paper made from hemp for the printed hardcover—an idea I love, as I blogged about here. The official launch of the book will be at The Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore at 5pm on Sunday, September 15—more about that in my Fall Newsletter, but please mark your calendar if you will be in the region—and meanwhile I am on a perpendicular learning curve about the whole publishing process. Even though I had a kind of practice run when I self-published my immigrant essay collection Beyond the Baobab as part of my MFA thesis, I didn’t fully understand the myriad pieces that have to come together—the editing, the bibliography, the designing, the printing, the marketing, and on and on—and this is just for one book with one indie publisher! I see now why it’s called “the publishing industry.”

It is exciting. Thank you for being part of it with me. Until my Fall Newsletter, take care!



Behind the façade

Evidently, the research bug hasn’t left me since I went in search of Sarah’s story for “Old New Worlds.” The other day I took myself on a walking tour of Earls Colne in Essex, where my sister settled about twenty miles from where Sarah’s husband grew up in the early 1800s. The earls in question in this little village on the banks of the river Colne (you don’t pronounce the “l”) are the twenty successive Earls of Oxford who were Lords of the Manor from 1141. Their heraldic symbol was a five-pointed star, which you can see in strategic places around the village, like this board on the village green.

At first glance, the buildings along the High Street don’t appear to be as ancient as the tenure of the earls would suggest, but the “House Detectives” Trail devised by the Earls Colne Parish Council guided me to clues of the true medieval period. The local grocery store, for instance, is made up of two medieval houses, and when the Co-op was last refurbished in 1983, a section of the ceiling was left open so that the rafters are clearly visible if you know to look up—as here, in the produce section.


Inadvertent selfie in this medieval windowpane!


A little further east from the Co-op is an alleyway where you can see, set into the side of the building, a small medieval window, which is the only clue to the 14th century timber frame that has been covered with plaster cladding over the rest of the wall.




Across the street, is an attractive Regency terrace—but it had been converted from an Elizabethan mansion that was built in 1585. When I explored behind the façade, hoping I wasn’t trespassing, I found a nest of old roofs from the earlier period (I believe that is a rather more contemporary dovecote in the foreground.) A bit further east on this side of the road is the only early building in Earls Colne that looks, aside from the windows and door, pretty much as it did when it was first build in 1520. Notice the projecting “jetty” of the upper floor, which was a typical feature of the period.

The focal point of the High Street is St Andrew’s Parish Church, built on the site of a church that had stood there before 1100. The impressive tower of the present church dates from the time of John de Vere, the 15th Earl of Oxford (c. 1482 –  1540) who was the first Protestant to take the title. He was knighted by Henry VIII and attended the king in battle, but Henry’s imprint on Earls Colne is a destructive one. He didn’t only play fast and loose with his six wives, he also suppressed the Catholic monasteries in the 1530s and took their land. This was the fate, too, of the Earls Colne Priory, which had been built during the time of Aubrey de Vere in the early 1100s, and, over time, it gradually fell into ruin. Unusually, though, the lands were returned to the de Veres—possibly because of John de Vere’s service to the king, possibly because the family tombs were there. Above this small doorway in the boundary wall of the old priory is a fragment from the tomb of the Eighth Earl of Oxford who died in 1371.

The title of the Earl of Oxford, the second longest in British peerage, is now dormant, but the de Vere family held the entitlement for more than five and a half centuries, until the death of the 20th earl in 1703. It’s fair to say I think that the most famous Earl of Oxford was the 17th, Edward de Vere, because of the Oxfordian theory, claiming that the earl was the author of William Shakespeare’s plays. The dates coincide—Edward de Vere: 1550-1604, Shakespeare: 1564-1616—but I can’t be a subscriber to that view. As Dominic Dromgoole, the former artistic director of the Globe Theatre, facetiously wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “In the world of these high priests [of Shakespearean arcana], nothing can be what it seems … and finally, of course, we tumble into the monumental blindness to reality of the authorship question. Shakespeare cannot be Shakespeare, because he was.” Still, I have to say, learning that Edward de Vere was from this line of Earls of Oxford made my exploration of Earls Colne that much more intriguing.

Today, I am American 18 times over

…for the judge who presided over my citizenship ceremony, it was his last day before he retired, and he teared up as he told us that swearing in new American citizens had been one of the best parts of his job.

“This is a land of immigrants,” he told us. “Even as you become new citizens of these United States, you must never lose the unique cultures that you have brought from your countries. They contribute to the rich tapestry that is America.”

Is it any wonder that I was thrumming with the auspiciousness of it all?

—quote from Old New Worlds

It was on May 4, 2001, four months before 9/11, that I became a naturalized American citizen before this inspiring judge, and every year when the anniversary rolls around I feel it as a gift. I stubbornly hang on to that sense of wide-eyed wonder, no matter how contentious the issues churning around immigration become, and it always makes me think about the myriad immigrants who have left their imprint here. This is the story of one of them, which I learned about on PBS’s American Masters series.


In 1864, a gangling 6’2″ Hungarian immigrant arrived in the United States at the age of 17 as a draftee for the U.S. Union Army. After the war, he made his way down south, where he scrounged a living as a muleteer, baggage handler, and waiter before he was offered a job at a German language daily newspaper. There, he built such a strong reputation as a tirelessly enterprising journalist that he was offered a controlling interest in the paper. By the time he was 25, he was a publisher. Six years later, he became a newspaper owner, spearheading the kind of investigative journalism that exposed government corruption and wealthy tax-dodgers.

Finding himself in New York in 1883, he bought up a newspaper that was in financial straits. In its pages he continued his crusade against public and private corruption; he used the paper to raise public subscriptions to build a pedestal so that the Statue of Liberty could be put up at the entrance to the New York harbor; and the newspaper led with largest circulation in the country.

In 1904, this immigrant who had arrived in America 40 years before, advocated for the founding of a school of journalism. In 1912, one year after his death, the Columbia School of Journalism was founded, and the first prizes—given annually in his name ever since—were awarded in 1917. The immigrant’s name was Joseph Pulitzer, who who had become a naturalized American citizen on March 6, 1867—just one of the countless migrants who have made a contribution to the very best that is America. How can we not be proud?

The world’s oldest paper

My publisher at Green Writers Press is floating the idea of printing Old New Worlds on hemp—and my instinctive response of “oo!” has quickly turned to Google.

“Hemp hurds are favorable in comparison with those used with pulp wood.”

– Jason L. Merrill, U.S. Department of Agriculture chief scientist in 1916

Cultivation of industrial hemp for fiber
Photo credit: Aleks

So what on earth is a “hurd?” Actually, let’s go back even further, what exactly is hemp? Oh! Hemp is part of the Cannabis species. But before we get too excited, industrial hemp is evidently a different strain from the Cannabis-as-a-drug variety, which has greater amounts of that chemical that causes marijuana to affect your mind and/or behavior. And the industrial hemp hurd, then, is the inner core of the hemp plant stalk or stem, which they pulp to make paper.

Now, here is the really big takeaway: hemp is hugely environment friendly. It requires minimal care; it can adapt to most climates; and it is much more eco-friendly and sustainable than tree paper because it can be produced more quickly than trees—hemp stalks grow in 4 months, whereas trees take 20-80 years. This absolutely ties in with the ethos of Green Writers Press, whose mission is to print sustainably. Even now, their books are printed with soy-based inks on paper made from pulp that comes from post-consumer waste paper. The GWP motto is:

“What the localvore movement did for the food industry, we want to be for publishing.”

Declaration of Independence, draft one
Public Domain

And here’s the part I also really love about printing on hemp paper: it was the world’s first paper! The Ministry of Hemp site tells me that the first identified paper dates back to the early Western Han Dynasty—around 200-150 BC—and that, since then, hemp paper was used all across the world. The Gutenberg Bible, the first and second drafts of the Declaration of Independence, and the novels of Mark Twain were all printed on hemp paper. Then, in the 1930s, big synthetic textile companies and newspapers—going against the wisdom of Jason L. Merrill, quoted above—lobbied to prohibit the cultivation of hemp in the United States. And they succeeded.

So, let that not only be a lesson to us about dubious lobbying practices; let us also see if we can be part of the movement to turn the tide towards hemp paper again—along with indie publishers like Green Writers Press. I’d love to be part of that journey.

Outside In: Miguel de la Fuente

outside-inIn 1962, a nine-year-old boy named Miguel Lino de la Fuente Alfonso and his two sisters were sent by their parents, with the assistance of Catholic Charities, from Matanzas, Cuba, to the United States of America in one of the world’s largest political exoduses of children in history. An estimated 14,000 unaccompanied children were airlifted from 1960 to 1962 to different locations in the U.S. as part of the Peter Pan project. As Miguel explains, “Under the Castro regime, a communist government, children – like the land, industries, stores, and housing – would become the property of the state. If that happened, parents would lose legal custody of their children.”

Once in the U.S., Miguel’s older sister was separated from him and his younger sister because she didn’t meet the age requirement of the Peter Pan project. So, although the two younger siblings were later reunited with their parents, they were never a complete family after 1962. “I did not come or was sent by my parents to chase the American dream for a better life,” says Miguel, “our life was just fine until it was taken away from us.” 

“Venceremos” oil, stucco Veneziano, shellac, gesso on paper 11 in x 14 in

Miguel has lived in three countries, seven U.S. States, an estimated seventeen cities, and countless residences. He now makes his home in Baltimore, where he works as a fine artist. He made this painting, Venceremos (meaning we will overcome), which shows his struggles to survive “the insurmountable challenge of using an unstable surface through the journey of applying incompatible materials, working each layer to compromise, morph, or dissipate.” He goes on to explain that through the complex experiences of loss, anxiety, fear, love, and happiness, the layers that are applied and removed to cover up, fix, or mask “create the beauty of never giving up.”

Ever since he remembers, Miguel has needed to be resilient. “Nothing is free. I have survived by trusting my instincts, being innovative, and never giving up.” In time, his immigrant status evolved from political refugee to U.S. Citizen, and it’s something he doesn’t take for granted. “Not only have so many Cubans fought and risked their lives to be wards of this great country, but human citizens of the world,” he says. He feels so fortunate to be educated, established, and to have made the best of all opportunities. At the same time, he struggles to make sense of all that he is. “I do have regret, or guilt, that my parents risked so much; risk of imprisonment, being black-listed, and even their own lives threatened for us to be in a democratic country, but we don’t have a democracy in the U.S. There is censorship, class discrimination, and lack of education.”

For Miguel, the strangest part has been not to be able to identify with his Cuban culture; having his life interrupted and not having a consistent upbringing until he was reunited with his parents four years after coming to the U.S. Even so, he makes the most of having two cultures, like observing all the hallmark holidays with a Cuban twist. “Celebrating Santa Claus and Los Reyes Magos, eating Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie but also roast pork, black beans and flan; all the US holidays that always gave us an excuse to get the family together and share our favorite foods.”

But he’s wistful about the happiness, dreams, security, and quality of life that his family lost. “I wonder,” he says, “what our lives would have been if we stayed in Cuba.”

Six Degrees of Separation

The concept of six degrees of separation is endlessly fascinating. For the longest time, I have been putting off reading Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir, The Light of the World. Joan Didion’s account of losing her husband in The Year of Magical Thinking made me feel hollowed out with sorrow, and I the-light-of-the-world-by-elizabeth-alexanderhadn’t even lost my mother or my brother in quick succession by then. I was nervous to open up the vulnerability of loss of a loved one in Alexander’s account. Her book turns out (I am about half way) to be so buoyant with love that I need not have worried. Yes, there is the paralyzing pain of grief, the trembling on the brink of tears every day for months on end, but the memoir is so shot through with love that this is the overriding emotion I am taking from it.

I know from her memoir that Alexander’s family is descended, in part, from African slaves, and I know that the love of her life, Ficre Ghebreyesus, was a political refugee from war-ravaged Eritrea in East Africa. Although I am not a poet, and am not of that world, I have picked up glancing references to Alexander over the years; most especially when she wrote and recited her poem, Praise Song for the Day, for Barack Obama’s first inauguration. Today, I felt that urge, as I usually do when I feel a connection to a writer, to find out more. Thank you Wikipedia.

Imagine my surprise to discover that her first book of poetry is called The Venus Hottentot. “Hottentot,” the (now derogatory) term for the ancient Khoi people of South Africa, is a word and concept I grew up with. Wiki tells us that Alexander’s title “comes from Sarah Baartman, a 19th-century South African woman of the Khoikhoi ethnic group.” The “Venus Hottentot’s” story is yet another aching fragment of South Africa’s history, and this African American writer, who has drawn me into her world and emotions through her words, took something from my native country to make a piercing cri de coeur. This kind of looping connection make me feel as if there is, after all, a thread that links us in this chaotic life we live.

Telling stories


When Jessica Miles Henkin from The Stoop Storytelling Series emailed me out of the blue to ask if I would consider telling a story about my immigration experience at the Saturday, November 7th partnership show with the Baltimore Museum of Art, it took me about a quarter of second to respond that I would be thrilled to. The deal is that seven people get seven minutes each to tell a true, personal tale on a shared theme in front of a live audience. The truly wonderful thing is that Jessica and her partner, Laura Wexler, are building an oral history of Baltimore through their storytelling series. They’ve featured stories from hundreds of Baltimoreans, including Laura Lippman, “The Wire” creator David Simon, Congressman Elijah Cummings, BMA Director Doreen Bolger, and a host of “ordinary” folks.

The theme of this particular show was “Haven: Stories about finding, creating, and losing a home,” so yes, given my peripatetic existence, I did have a story to tell.  But preparing to tell it was another matter. As a former actor, I was used to getting up in front of an audience, but then I could hide behind someone else’s words and character. As a broadcaster, I had learned to be myself and speak off the cuff, but that was with factual soundbites. As a writer, I knew about narrative arc, but then you have all the time in the word to shape and craft to find just the right word and format. All of those things – acting, broadcasting, writing – helped, but spontaneous story telling was a new, and steep, learning curve.

Laura and Jessica couldn’t have been more supportive, affirming, and constructive in their guidance and presentation, and the best part was hearing the other storytellers, which included a refugee from Togo and someone who wants to make her life on Mars. Please enjoy our stories here.


Found objects

Look what I found, crumpled up and crammed behind the right drawer of my “new” writing desk!


Close inspection tells me that it is the Certificate of Birth for Baby Girl Seifert, Anne Louise, born November 3, 1933, to Joseph Nicholas (42) and Claire Wilmoth Schamberger (39) of 307 Cedarcroft Road in Baltimore. It is a copy from the Baltimore Bureau of Vital Records, and it’s dated June 11, 1951, which means the desk is at least that old. There are so many things I love about this: it gives me a tiny peek into the desk’s history; the baby girl’s name was spelled with an “e” as my sister spells hers; and the desk hasn’t travelled too far afield, since it has fetched up now in my studio in Homeland. One of these days, I will drive past 307 Cedarcroft Road and let my imagination wander.

When I wrote a post about Virginia Woolf’s belief in a room of one’s own [Channeling Virginia Woolf] I didn’t quite realize that the room is almost the least of it – the desk inside the room is the true touchstone. First, I experimented with an oak secretary desk. It is the first good piece of furniture I ever bought, in an antique store in Cape Town. It didn’t work, though, because I kept banging my knees on the cupboards underneath.


Next, I tried a gorgeous round, leather-topped table that had been passed on by our across-the-lane neighbors. But, as perfect as it is for actual writing, it is less perfect for the teetering piles of books and research papers that kept sliding off the rounded edges, so I had to think again.



At The Turnover Shop I found a marvelous piece that reminded me of one of those old campaign desks that fold up on themselves. I brought it home and loved it … but then, gradually, it also presented problems, in the form of tendonitis, because it was made for writing on pieces of paper not for typing on a laptop, and my wrists were left dangling in mid-air. It broke my heart, but I had to give up on that one too.

It was back to The Turnover Shop where I saw a desk that was the perfect dimension – but it was painted, and I’ve tended to have a bit of an aversion to painted wood. Except that now my stylish niece has been collecting shabby chic furniture that looks terrific. So I took a chance. After a day of lung clogging scraping and sanding and distressing, I believe I have finally hit the mark. Now, I sit by the window at my old-new writing desk, dreaming and imagining and thinking – in the crevices of the actual writing – as I look out on the trees and the comings and goings along the lane. Doves come to perch on the window sill to coo, and I feel that I have found a little nest of my own.

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